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Series / Ascension (Miniseries)

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Ascension is a Syfy miniseries about an Orion Drive-powered Colony Ship secretly built by the United States at the height of the Cold War to establish a settlement at Proxima Centauri. The population is generally divided into two classes, the one living at the top of the ship in relative comfort, and the rest who are the ones who make the ship actually function. After 50 years without incident, one of the colonists is found murdered, and tensions begin to rise among the colonists.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the son of the project's founder is determined to keep the project going.

Ascension was originally broadcast as three consecutive double-episodes, December 15-17, 2014, on Syfy. Canada's CBC played the series as six episodes, airing once weekly, and online streaming services display the series in the six episode format, each named after parts one and two of three distinct "chapters" in the show. Despite decent ratings and some critical attention, the show was not renewed as a full series, like Battlestar Galactica was.

Not to be confused with anything else sharing the name.

This work contains examples of:

  • A God Am I: Harris has a serious case of this by episode two's end.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Viondra has a threesome with Rose and Jackie but that could just be her playing politics.
  • Anti-Hero: Captain Denniger is a serial philanderer who is willing to let his wife sleep with his rival for political advantage. On the other hand he deeply cares for his people and his ship and is willing to risk his life for them.
  • Artificial Gravity: The starship is clearly intended to use acceleration gravity - it is structured like a tower, with "down" toward the engines and "up" toward the nose; so if you accelerate constantly to the halfway mark, then flip the ship around and burn the engines in the opposite direction to slow down until you arrive, you could have a constant gravity all through the trip. This may be an example of Hollywood Math however, as it only takes about a year to come very close to the speed of light if you accelerate constantly at 1G and their destination is around 4 light years away, which would make their trip 5-6 years long Earth-time, and 4 years ship-time (due to time dilation). The twist at the end of the first episode shows that they are in fact under 1G, but you would think that the ship's inhabitants might question why their trip is so long... it may be that they have all been raised on inaccurate science fiction, and given inaccurate information about relativistic physics - or inaccurate information on the actual distance of Proxima Centauri - to make sure they don't question the nature of the ship. Although Hollywood Math is probably a better explanation.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: The idea that Ascension could actually exist is mocked by someone who hears the conspiracy theory as ridiculous, on the grounds that the American government is far too incompetent to have successfully commissioned and hid such a project (of course, the one who says this is Harris and in retrospective he's essentially doing a Sarcastic Confession). Sure enough, a large part of the plot outside of the ship proper is the struggle by Harris to keep his place in the project because he's gone to lengths that all other staff has started to deem ridiculous in order to maintain the charade for the people in the ship.
  • Band of Brothels: The Stewardesses combine the attributes of High-Class Call Girl with the Geisha. It's more accurate to refer to them as the Band of a Brothel, though, as the Stewardesses are a single organization under Viondra.
    • It's implied their role as prostitutes is a relatively recent addition by Viondra, who claims they get far more respect and power this way. So, they literally are Stewardesses.
  • Bury Your Gays: The one explicitly lesbian character, Samantha, is shot by Eve. See also Hide Your Lesbians below.
  • Cabin Fever: An actual medical condition all of the USS Ascension's children suffer from. Called "The Crisis", it afflicts teenagers when they realize they have literally no hope of doing anything other than what's planned for them or ever visiting any place other than the one they grew up on.
  • The Captain: William Denniger, put on track for his current position after heroic efforts during a fire years ago. He does not expect to be captain when the ship reaches Proxima, which has had interesting psychological effects on him.
    Denniger: It's the captain who leaves and the captain who lands who get remembered, not the guy in the middle.
  • Closed Circle: The only place the murderer could be is somewhere aboard the Ascension, since it's fifty years out in space. Except they never left Earth, so the potential is a lot broader.
  • Colony Ship: The USS Ascension, apparently of the Generation Ship flavor. Though it's really more accurate to think of it as a time capsule, only containing people meant to perform a Super Breeding Program without their knowledge, apparently geared towards the production of Psychic Powers, with a practical side-effect of sticking geniuses in a tin-can and letting them invent without harassment and producing useful technology. Quite an efficient, if horrifying, project.
  • Creepy Blue Eyes: Warren's enforcer Medici has an impressive pair.
  • Creepy Child: Crista certainly isn't a girl you'd want your kids to play with. No wonder almost everyone on the ship considers her a weirdo, and that's before she starts developing Psychic Powers.
  • Decadent Court: Not technically a court but the upper deck qualify. Everyone's main occupations seem to be jockeying for position, partying and sleeping with each others wives.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Weirdly averted. Especially strange as it's continuously noted how the people in Acension are stuck in a time without the effects of the Summer of Love or the Civil Rights Movement, and yet the society on Ascension is far more equal than it should be with that lack of social upheaval. Both black and female characters are shown as fairly sexually liberated and able to hold positions of power. While they are not as equal as their white male collegues, they are no where near as oppressed as they should be for a bunch of people whose values are still from the early 60s.
  • Disney Villain Death: Warren gets unceremoniously shoved off a broken catwalk by Harris.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Only a thin wall separates the clear blue water, artificial sun, and soothing environment of the beach room from the nasty, green slime of what looks like an algae tank. Presumably this symbolizes both the class barriers between the upper and lower decks, and the tensions and negative emotions that exist beneath the seemingly calm and efficient upper deck society itself.
    • Invoked by the fact Gault is the highest ranking black man on the ship but looked down upon, not for his race, but his status as a Lower Decker.
  • Dramatic Irony: Both Nora and James believe diametrically opposed views about the value of the ship. Nora believes that what they're doing is of amazing importance, equal to Columbus or Jamestown. James thinks this is a nihilistic death walk which no one will survive. They're both wrong. Nora will never see an alien world while James could walk on the beaches he wants to see just by leaving the bunker.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: The Ascension is contained within a massive underground complex. The 'ship' is deliberately isolated from the rest of the base, and surrounded by projection screens that simulate a moving starfield.
  • Enforced Technology Levels: No firearms were supposed to be on board ship. Then Lorelei ends up in the beach room with a bullet in her head...
  • Engineered Public Confession: Councilman Rose tries to oust Denniger and take his position as captain. To this end, he locates a woman and her unclaimed child Denniger has been sending rations to, unveiling them to the council. Denniger admits to having been sending them rations... and then shames Rose's ally for valuing his status over his own child.
  • Eternal Sexual Freedom: Played with as the environment in the ship is stuck in the 1960s. However, due to the nature of the implants, women have near-perfect reproductive protection and casual sex has become more common. Some comments indicate promiscuity is still looked down upon, though.
  • E.T. Gave Us Wi-Fi: In a variant, it's said that Ascension has made numerous advances which have been replicated on Earth without public knowledge of their true source. MRIs specifically are name-dropped, and it's stated that it's basically what happens when you stick geniuses in a tin can and allow them to do their thing.
  • Everybody Has Lots of Sex: Do they ever.
  • Explosive Decompression: Subverted. Though they do a good job of simulating it.
  • Fanservice: The Stewardesses, especially Jackie and Viondra (who displays her bare behind in all three episodesnote ).
  • Fantastic Caste System: Society on Ascension is divided between the elite "Upper Deckers" (the command crew, political leadership, scientists, and the beautiful Stewardesses) and the trod-upon, working-class "Lower Deckers" (the ones who farm the food and maintain the ship's systems). There's also the 'unclaimed', children born without permission who are seen as a waste of resources and are treated as pariahs by everyone else.
  • First Time in the Sun: Stokes experiences this as he and Samantha make their escape from the Ascension project complex, even as he complains it's almost too bright to see.
  • Genius Breeding Act: The initial selection consisted of a large number of scientists, evidently to encourage this trope. Numerous children were also abducted to help with a more unethical program — the creation of Psychic Powers.
  • Graffiti of the Resistance: "NO FUTURE". Used by the lower decks almost exclusively, it's not really just a resistance symbol; according to a lower deck character, it's also yelled whenever someone is asked why they did something wrong. The lower decks have a much less heroic view of what the Ascension is doing than their upper-deck counterparts, brought on by slugging through slime and mud to keep the machine working rather than sitting about politicking and pondering how great their sacrifice is. The same character even openly opines that the journey won't go anywhere, and that Ascension was just a way for corporations on earth to get paid off fifty years ago. Given that Ascension never left and the corporation behind it all is indeed making money off the inventions made onboard, he's closer to right than he thinks.
  • He Knows Too Much: Given the highly secretive nature of Ascension, employees are "retired" via bullet to the head, and anyone on the outside who finds out about it is promptly killed.
  • Heroic BSoD: Evidently everyone born on Ascension goes through "The Crisis" in their teen years, when it finally hits them that they'll never leave the ship. Since they're halfway to their destination when the show begins, some are now able to console themselves by rationalizing that they might actually make it to Proxima alive, though it's clear that the Crisis never fully ends for some people (like the Captain, see above).
  • Hide Your Lesbians: Averted with Samantha who left the military because "They didn't ask but I told.". However she explicitly refers to Eve as a "honey trap" implying a sexual element to their relationship and after shooting her Eve calls her "sweetie".
  • Honey Trap:
    • The Stewardesses are an entire organization used by Viondra to gather information for her and Denniger's benefit, and to deal with the sexual fallout of a society where marriage is determined by machine.
    • Name-dropped by Samantha when her supposed ally Eve turns out to be just another agent for the project. Samantha gets a bullet to the head for her mistake.
  • Hypocrite: Captain Denniger is sleeping with multiple much-younger women. He resents the fact his wife is a madame, however, even if she's using her position for his benefit. It is implied it's only the possibility of her having sex with other men which bothers him. Justified as this is the Space Sixties.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Samantha realizes Eve knows more than she should when she made a remark about Stokes complaining as "has to be better than working at the stockyards" when Samantha never said where he'd worked.
  • It's All About Me: Councilman Rose wants to be captain, but only because he either wants to embarrass Denniger or get Viondra for himself. He goes so far as to try to take command during a crisis when everyone is busy, even though the only two outcomes would be temporary command or the entire crew dying.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: The No Future group indicates they should all return to Earth before they cross a point they won't be able to do so. Given that their knowledge of Proxima is incredibly limited, it seems quite likely they may be colonizing a world with none of the resources needed to sustain life indefinitely. Not that they have ever left Earth.
  • Kick the Dog: Denniger obstructs the investigation of Lorelei's murder because he was the one she had sex with the night she died.
  • Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: Eventually revealed to be the reason behind Lorelei's death.
  • Left Hanging: At the end of the series, several potential plot lines were open for use if the network decided to produce a full-fledged Ascension series:
    • Christa has apparently teleported Gault to an extrasolar planet (it's unclear if he's in the Proxima system or not, or even that he isn't actually still on Earth after all). Although the atmosphere is breathable, he'd better hope the local life forms aren't dextro-based.
    • Stokes is on the lam in the outside world, but presumably Eva and the TC Group are still looking for him.
    • Captain Denniger and his wife have saved the ship, but the bad blood between them and the Council hasn't been settled.
    • Harris seems to be back in control of the Ascension project, but who knows what the TC Group's next move will be?
  • Lingerie Scene:
    • In the very first scene of the first episode, we see Lorelei slip out of her dress and go for a swim in her lacy underwear. There is then a cut to her lying dead on the beach.
    • In the last episode, after Samantha has been shot, she has to take off her shirt to treat the wound, and then wears just a bra for a while before she can get a new shirt.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Samantha Krueger is one of the "chapstick" variety, to the degree that she even vaguely resembles a younger Ellen Degeneres.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Played with as regards the Captain's wife, Viondra; while she is definitely not above using her social and official position as a power broker, as well as her own body, it's also made clear that she deeply, truly loves Captain Denniger.
  • Meaningful Name: An "Enzmann starship" is an actual conception, though Ascension isn't one.
  • Moe Greene Special: How Eva offs Samantha. With the target's own gun no less.
  • The Mole: Numerous.
    • Jackie is one among the Stewardesses for Councilman Rose.
    • Harris' assistant is one for Warren.
    • Harris has one on Ascension, Bryce, in case he needs to fix something from the inside.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: SyFy's trailers depict Ascension as a hard-SF generation-ship epic in the vein of Robert A. Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky. They contain no hint that the entire Ascension project is a sham, and it's really a science-fantasy about a government conspiracy to create a preteen girl with ESP. Many viewers complained of feeling bait-and-switched after the first double-episode.
  • No Ending: Ascension is obviously meant to be a backdoor pilot for a TV series, or at least another miniseries. Hence, it doesn't really end so much as just stop, leaving lots of unanswered questions.
  • Number Two: Executive Officer Gault, who worked his way up from the lower decks and is trusted by Captain Denniger to investigate Lorelei's murder, and seems to be one of the few people Denniger actually trusts.
  • Oh, Crap!: Bryce's response to one of the bridge monitors during the crisis showing an episode of ALF due to the ship now able to receive outside signals.
  • Person as Verb: The expression "going full Snowden" is used at one point synonymous to "we'll tell everyone and their mother about this shit".
  • Population Control: As might be expected on a ship with limited resources, reproduction is tightly controlled and partners are determined by computer selection. This isn't to say casual sex isn't allowed, otherwise the Stewardesses wouldn't exist, but actual procreation is a different story. Implants prevent unwanted pregnancies, and in cases where they malfunction or are subverted, the resulting children are deemed "unclaimed". The parents and child are relegated to the lowest rungs of society.
  • Professional Buttkisser: Carillo, who betrayed Harris to Warren when she took control, but sidled right back next to him after she took a long walk off a short gantry.
  • Psychic Children: Christa, who among other things is able to see the outside world in her dreams and knows she's being watched, can telekinetically blow up lightbulbs, dream the future with near-perfect accuracy... and has a body condition that will kill her if not regularly medicated. In the third episode, she releases an EMP which takes out most of the ship, and in the climax warps Gault to what appears to be another planet.
  • Raster Vision: Appears on the spaceship's black and white monitors.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Captain Denniger, relatively speaking; while he cheats on his wife near-constantly and is clearly ill-suited to play politics, he does seem to take his position's responsibilities with some seriousness. Compare to Councilman Rose, who has no apparent respect for the position other than the status it brings.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Director Harris is in love with the ship's doctor despite the fact he's never met her. His obsession is deep enough he married a woman who physically resembles her and bestows upon her a necklace stolen from her so he can pretend she's Doctor Bryce.
  • The Reveal: A theme of the series, with each "chapter" so far ending in one.
    • First Double-episode: Ascension is actually on Earth, its true purpose being an elaborate experiment designed to test how those within react to the idea of traveling to another world.
    • Second Double-episode: Ascension is actually a Super Breeding Program designed to create Psychic Powers, which it has successfully done so at least once in 1983, and again with Christa in the modern day. That's why the computer chooses who to marry. The entire elaborate experiment was a cover story sold to make the government fund the program, meaning that there are two layers of lies above the truth: the lie to the inhabitants that they are in space, the lie to the government that the program will study the effects of a generation ship, and the truth that the entire program is simply a way to create controlled conditions for selecting markers to create Psychic Children.
    • Third Double-pisode: Christa can teleport people away — possibly even across light-years of space to other planets (much to Gault's surprise). Harris implies this was the true aim of the project, and now they really can send people to other worlds.
  • Schizo Tech: The 1960s-era spacecraft has, among other things, an MRI, tablet computers, and storage media far superior to what would have been available at the time. This is handwaved to an extent by explaining at least some of these things were invented on Ascension.
  • Secret-Keeper: Harris Enzmann, one of the few on Earth who even know about the Ascension's existence.
  • Shout-Out: The goal of the Ascension project resembles that in Frederik Pohl's "The Gold at the Starbow's End".
  • Small Reference Pools: An in-story example. For starters, obviously the ship's library doesn't include any works created after 1963. And when Gault tries to check out a book on police procedures to help his investigation, his sister the librarian tells him they didn't think to bring one along. He ends up watching crime movies; the classic film M gives him an idea of how to follow one of the suspects. One of them is quite confused when a technical malfunction disables the jamming devices on the ship, causing one of the consoles to pick up an episode of ALF.
  • Smug Snake: It's hard not to see Councilman Rose as anything but, given his political acumen is almost nonexistent and amounts to repeating (mostly true) rumors.
  • Spotting the Thread: Sam never told Eva that Stokes worked in the stockyard. But when she confronted her, Sam wasn't really ready for Eva's reaction.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Harris has long harbored a crush on Ascension's medical director, going so far as to marry someone who looks similar and even have her necklace stolen so he can pretend his wife is her. He watches her constantly, and is implied to have done so since he and she were both children; it's one of many things that make him so incredibly creepy.
  • The Starscream: Jackie to Viondra.
  • Super Breeding Program: Christa's existence hints at a darker aim to the Genius Breeding Act. Episode Two confirms that the Ascension's real goal is to do this, which is demonstrated in the third when she apparently warps Gault to another planet.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Stokes gets hit pretty bad with one. Apparently lost his job to Gault somehow, likely framed for a murder, sucked out an airlock into the test area for Ascension and suffering a psychotic break at the impossibility of it all, being kept sedated in a hospital room thinking he's in hell, and eventually seeing his son's grave.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Crista suffers a lot from this due to her Psychic Powers.
  • Thrown Out the Airlock: This is used as a threat against a murder suspect. With limited resources and no desire to keep a murderer around, they'd just space him. It gets him talking. The same guy later gets spaced for real during a fight with Gault, leading to the reveal that Ascension is a sham.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Samantha reaches this point near the end of third episode. She is an ex-military operative, has proven to be very competent, and is not only intelligent enough to have a get away car/bag but also figures out that her ally is really a plant to trap and kill anyone who gets too close to the truth. She even manages to successfully pull a gun on said ally. What does she do then? Stews in frustration close enough to the enemy that her gun is quickly taken and used to kill her.
  • Tuckerization: Two of the "63/70" (the 70 scientists who disappeared when Ascension set out in 1963) were named Alfred Bester and Fritz Leiber.
  • United Space of America: Not surprising, since the US built Ascension. They recite a modified Pledge of Allegiance and use a modified US flag featuring a ring-like formation of 34 stars.
  • Underwear Swimsuit: In the first scene of the first episode, Lorelei, who's left a party, takes off her dress and goes for a swim in her bra and panties.
  • Unlimited Wardrobe: The women aboard the Ascension parade an endless selection of gorgeous dresses. You'll practically never see someone wear the same outfit twice, which is especially impressive in light of the ship's severely limited production capabilities.
  • Used Future: In contrast to the Zeerust Schizo Tech of the upper decks, the lower decks hold livestock pens, smelters, furnaces, machine shops, and all the other infrastructure needed to keep Ascension running over the past five decades, and it shows.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After Stokes is "spaced", he's convinced he's in Hell and undergoes a complete (but fortunately, temporary) psychotic break.
  • Virtual Training Simulation: Ascension's Terra Chamber, where the vehicles that will be used at Proxima are tested in a simulated planetary surface.
  • Wham Episode: At the end of the first episode, Stokes is Thrown Out the Airlock and drifts screaming though space... until he lands on an airbag at the base of the "spaceship" and is immediately sedated by hazmat-suited personnel. Turns out Ascension never went anywhere.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The end of the third episode shows Gault apparently on an alien planet (courtesy of Christa's powers), but there's no sign of the TC Group operative who was attacking him at the time.
    • That's because Christa kills him with her powers. Watch at the point where both men vanish. You'll see the operative dissolve into a scatter of particles as Gault vanishes.
    • Harris shows Warren tapes of a pre-Christa psychic who appeared 30 years earlier and went crazy, but it's not clear what happened to him.
  • Workaholic: Though Harris maintains a family life that has no apparent problems (he's implied to be a little distant, but not to an extreme), he nevertheless is utterly invested in the Ascension. When Warren tries to replace him, he even says no one else is as devoted to the program as he is, and anyone else would surely botch it in his place.
    • Harris seems to be the embodiment of the first episode's Theme Tune. He's not the man they think he is at home, he's a rocket manů
  • You Are in Command Now: Due to a massive electrical surge in episode three frying the comm system, Viondra finds herself in command when Denniger and Gault have to leave to fix the CO2 scrubbers, since the rest of the council is out of contact and she happens to be closest to the bridge. Councilman Rose eventually shows up and tries to take command from her, but by this point she's issued a state of emergency to prevent any such command jockeying.
  • Zeerust: An in-universe example, as the people of Ascension still operate under 1963 America's social mores and strictures.

Alternative Title(s): Ascension 2014, Ascension